Road Tripping: Or, Facing My Fear of the Freeway

One decision I made as my first marriage was ending was that when it was all over and our son was off to university, I was moving to Southern California. That decision led to a personal understanding: if I planned to live on the West Coast, on my own, I was going to have to conquer my fear of driving on limited-access highways. I hadn’t done it for nearly a decade. It wasn’t necessary in Memphis. In Los Angeles, it absolutely would be.

I93 Bridge by Paul Vasquez 3rsblogdotcom
A highway in neither Memphis not Los Angeles: I-93, Boston, June 2013
I stopped driving on highways after a car accident in June, 1991. It happened on a Monday morning, as my family was driving back to Ithaca, New York after spending a few days in Florida for a friend’s wedding. My (first) husband (“1H” for the rest of this story) and I traded time behind the wheel, and I was taking the first shift that day. Not long after we entered I-95 near Brunswick, Georgia, I saw that a truck was about to merge onto the highway. As I adjusted to give it room, I felt a bump from behind…and I got completely spooked. I couldn’t seem to slow the car down, and I thought we were speeding directly into a rock face straight ahead. I wrenched the car into the median to avoid it and drove us back in the other direction, still unable to get my foot off the accelerator. When I finally brought us to a stop, the car had two blown tires and a bent frame, but no one was injured.

I think I bounced off a car that was in my blind spot when I tried to make space for the truck, but I’ve never been entirely clear on what happened–or forgotten the flood of adrenaline and terror that accompanied it. When we got back on the highway, 1H took the wheel, but told me that if we didn’t continue to trade off for the rest of the trip, he believed I would start developing a phobia, so he was not going to do all driving for the next two days. I figured he was right about that, and the rest of our shared drive was uneventful, if not entirely relaxed.

The phobia set in later. Ithaca has been called “centrally isolated,” and it’s nearly an hour’s drive from town to the nearest interstate on-ramp. I didn’t get exposed to the possibility of highway driving again until November, when we moved to Memphis for 1H’s new job. By then, neither of us felt comfortable with the idea of me driving long distances at highway speeds, so he did it for the entire trip–and for the rest of the 1990s.

Sharing your plans with someone else tends to make you feel accountable. That kind of accountability has both pros and cons, and when it comes to plans that really don’t affect anyone besides me, I tend to shirk it–no one else hears about those plans until I’ve acted on them. (That lets me avoid awkward questions about whether I have acted, or when I will.) By the middle of 2001, not long before 1H and I filed for divorce, I had a plan to take to the highway, and I didn’t mention it to anyone.

Memphis isn’t a bad place to live if you don’t like highway driving–it does make getting around town easier, but you can do without it just as easily. For those same reasons, it’s also not a bad place to teach yourself highway driving (again). I started with the automotive version of baby steps, on my own. During one long late-summer weekend when 1H was out of town, I drove from our house to nearby Highway 385, got on at the first entrance ramp I reached, and got right back off at the next exit, breathless and agitated for the entire stretch (which probably lasted about three minutes). Then I did it again, a few more times, traveling a little bit further between exits with each attempt. When I picked 1H up at the airport, I told him what I’d been doing, and he challenged me to make part of the drive home on Interstate 240. I did it.

I certainly wasn’t ready for rush hour yet, but within weeks I was occasionally forsaking my all-surface-street routes to use I-240 for my drive to and from work. I built up slowly, but with intent: I was leaving for California at the end of June, in my car. Although a co-driver was making the trip with me, I intended to do most of the driving for at least three solid days on highways. And I did–although, by mutual agreement, I didn’t drive the last leg, into and through Los Angeles itself. There would be plenty of opportunities to work my way up to that.

I rarely drive during road trips now, but it’s for different reasons. it’s partly because Tall Paul actually enjoys driving (and is a terrible passenger–the two things may or may not be related), and partly because an 80-plus-mile daily round-trip commute on four freeways makes me more than happy to let someone else drive when I can. I still tense up when I’m on an unfamiliar stretch of local highway, but I’m not sure that’s so bad; the list of places where driving is more “defensive” than it is in LA is probably not very long, so it’s important to stay on alert.

My freeway fear is mostly behind me now, although it’s prudent not to let go of it completely, especially when it rains in Southern California. I still tend to seek out alternative, non-freeway routes when I can–I just like knowing my way around, and you get to know an area better when you come down from the highway–but I’m glad I don’t have to rely on them. I could get to and from work on nothing but surface streets if I had to–I know several routes across the Valley and down into Hollywood–but I wouldn’t really feel like working by the time I finally got there, and I wouldn’t have much time to work before I’d have to start the trip home. It’s not hard to feel like you spend all day in your car when you’re driving on the freeways of Los Angeles. But without those freeways, you could actually spend all day in your car, and I’m glad I’m not forced by my fears to do that.

Thoughts From My Reading 3rsblogdotcom

This “Thoughts From My Reading”  was inspired by Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave, by Patty Chang Anker. I just finished reading it and will have my thoughts on the book itself posted here in a few days; one of the chapters is about fear of driving, but I wrote this piece before I got to that.

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